Mobile Update – January 19, 2016

Here’s my quick take on recent stories about smartphones, tablets, and supporting technologies that I found interesting.

The End of Two Year Contracts

Both AT&T and Sprint have joined T-Mobile and Verizon in ending requiring a two year contract when purchasing a new phone. The cellular service and phone purchase are now financed separately on all major US carriers as it should be. This is a good for consumers as they can shop for the phone and service separately. This should create more competition between carriers and sellers of phones which leads to better service and lower prices.

This is the way mobile sales works in the rest of the world. We can thank T-Mobile for starting the trend here in the US which forced the other carriers to follow suit.

See Engadget and The Verge

iPhone Dominated Holiday Sales

It seems that Apple has a pretty good holiday season. According to Flurry, almost half of new phone activations worldwide during Christmas week were iPhones. Samsung came in second with about 20%.

These new iPhone owners seem to be using their phones too as Apple reported “in the two weeks ending January 3, customers spent over $1.1 billion on apps and in-app purchases”.

Smartphone with an Optical Zoom

The one camera feature I have wanted in a smartphone but never thought I’d see has been an optical zoom. All smartphone cameras have a digital zoom, where software attempts to zoom in on the subject, but the results are almost always poor. I never expected to see an actual optical zoom in a smartphone as it requires space between the lens and sensor and there is very little of that in a modern smartphone. Asus seems to have figured out how to make this work as the Zenfone Zoom offers an actual optical 3x zoom lens.

The rest of the phone seems unremarkable, but I’m hoping that other vendors will be able to offer similar technology in future devices.

See Engadget and Android Central

Casio Smart Outdoor Watch

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Casio introduced the Smart Outdoor Watch WSD-F10 for people who enjoy outdoor activities such as hiking, camping, cycling, fishing, etc. The watch is a unique smartwatch in that it is customized for a certain user group. For outdoor use the watch is rugged (water resistant, vibration resistant, and shock resistant), has special sensors (magnetic compass, air pressure, altitude,  and accelerometer) and comes with special apps for these activities (trekking, fishing, and cycling).

Also unique to this watch is that it has two displays; a color and monochrome display. When the battery drops below a certain level, the color display is disabled. Using the monochrome display, the watch can be used to tell time for 30 days but the other smartwatch functions are disabled.

The WSD-F10 will be priced at $499 and will be available in April.

I applaud Casio for making a specialized smartwatch. The price seems steep but for people who regularly participate in these activities this seems like it could be a worthy investment. My biggest concern about it is the battery life. Casio claims about one day’s worth of charge for the smartwatch features which seems too short for someone going on a multi-day camping or biking trip.

See Wareable and The Verge

Fitbit Blaze Smartwatch

Fitbit also announced a specialty smartwatch at CES; the Fitbit Blaze. As you might expect from Fitbit, the Blaze has a focus on fitness tracking. The thought is that since people tend to take off their fitness trackers when they are at the office or out on the town which reduces the amount of data that is captured. The Blaze promises to capture more information since you can wear it all the time. Fitbit probably has better data about this than I do, but I see plenty of people wearing fitness bands along with a regular watch in the office and out at night.

Like other smartwatches, the Blaze can be outfitted in various styles and bands. The watch itself snaps into differently styled frames that can use different types of bands (rubber, leather, metal). You can easily snap the watch into a different frame when going to the gym or going out to a fancy dinner.

The focus of the product really is fitness tracking first and being a smartwatch second. While it displays notifications from your phone and can control audio, you cannot act upon any of the notifications. It also does not support third party apps.

For fitness, it contains the usual sensors including heart rate. A unique feature of the Blaze is that it claims five day battery life which allows you to sleep with it for monitoring your sleep patterns. You really can’t do that with a watch you have to recharge daily. Another sacrifice for the battery is that there is no GPS on the watch. It can work with the GPS on your phone so you will need to keep your phone with you to map your running or cycling routes.

It looks like Fitbit is trying to make a fashionable wearable. Whether you like the way the Blaze looks or not is personal opinion. From the pictures I think its a bit awkward looking but I’d have to see one in person to be sure. Like the new Pebble watches, it has a large bezel around a small display which looks cheap in my opinion. I do think that it is an interesting solution for people who otherwise are always wearing a fitness tracker. Starting at $200 with the rubber band, it is more expensive than most fitness trackers, but less expensive than many smartwatches which may make it a good compromise. The Blaze will be available in March.

iOS 9.3

Apple released the first beta of iOS 9.3 this week to developers and the public. There are many improvements but I wanted to call out the ones of most significance.

Night Shift

Night Shift changes the iPhone or iPad’s display to use softer colors at night as studies show that the blue tint of most color displays can interfere with a person’s sleep patterns. It is nice that Apple is adding this feature, but Apple is not the first to include such a feature. Amazon uses similar technology in Fire tablets. An app called F.lux does just this and has been out for various platforms for some time. It was available for iOS until Apple kicked it out of the App Store for using private APIs. It seems a bit shady that Apple would boot this app out and then integrate the same functionality into the OS without giving the authors of F.lux any credit or compensation.

Encryption in Notes

An update to the iOS Notes app includes the ability to encrypt individual notes. This can be handy to keep things like passwords and other personal information in Notes without worrying that anyone who has your phone can see them. It does make Notes more competitive to third party notes applications such Evernote and Microsoft OneNote which already have this feature. Keeping customers using Notes helps lock those customers into Apple’s ecosystem. It would be harder to switch to Android or Windows if all of your notes were trapped in iOS or OS X.

Education Updates for iPad

It is no secret that Google’s Chromebook devices have become dominant in classrooms across the country at the expense of the iPad. Apple appears to be attempting to regain some of that lost ground with iOS 9.3.

“Shared iPad” lets multiple students keep share a single device. This is a long requested feature that obviously benefits a classroom that doesn’t have an iPad for each student. I am hoping this feature finds its way into iOS for all users as it would be nice for families to be able to share a device too.

“Classroom” is an app for teachers to control their students iPads including:

  • Viewing a student’s screen remotely
  • Launching an app, web page, or eBook on students’ iPads
  • Share any student’s screen to a projector via AirPlay

“Apple School Manager” provides centralized management of iPads for the school’s IT department.

All of these sound like good ideas for deploying large numbers of iPads an academic environment and I’m sure is a direct response to feedback from schools. Even with these new features Apple still has these problems in competing with Chromebooks:

  • Chromebooks are much less expensive than iPads
  • Replacing a broken or lost Chromebook is as simple as logging in with a new device since all programs and data are stored in the cloud
  • Chromebooks have keyboards which give them the perception of being “real computers” to students instead of toys. Students treat them differently.

See Apple

 

That’s it for now! I’ll be back when there is more to share.

 

 

 

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A Week with an Apple Watch

I must have been a good boy this year as I received an Apple Watch as a Christmas present from my most awesome wife. I’ve been using it for about a week now and wanted to share my first impressions.

The Hardware

I have a 42mm Apple Watch (the larger version) and it is smaller than it looks in pictures. It does not feel big or overly heavy on my wrist. The watch is certainly not thin but doesn’t feel overly thick either. The Apple Watch is smaller than the Martian Notifier that I have been wearing for the last year.

Apple-Martian-Watches

I think it also looks better in person than it does in pictures. Everyone may not like a rectangular face, but it does leave room for “complications” (such as the temperature in the picture above) along with the circular face.

The Band

One feature of the Apple Watch is the ability to easily change bands. I think that’s a great idea and don’t know why other watches do not do something like this. Apple offers several differerent styles of bands and there are many third party ones also available (often for much less cost).

My watch came with a black “sport band” which is a “fluoroelastomer” (i.e. rubber) band. It doesn’t have a traditional buckle and putting it on takes a bit of practice. The best part of this design is that the end tucks in underneath the band so there is nothing sticking out to get caught on a sleeve or pocket. The band on the Martian watch is a really thick rubber band I found it often getting in the way.

Using the Watch

The primary mission of any watch is to tell time. Like all smart watches, the Apple Watch offers several watch faces. There are 13 to choose from and each one can be customized to your liking. It is pretty easy to switch from one to another so I’ve made a couple to with different styles that show different pieces of information (i.e. “complications”) for different purposes. It is a shame that Apple does not allow for third party watch faces. This seems to be a thriving market for Android Wear with lots of great looking faces available.

I’m left handed and wear my watch on my right hand. Since the display is a screen it can be flipped over in software to be configured so that the crown is on the left. I then had to switch the sides of the band, but that is really easy to do. A win for lefties!

To conserve power the display turns itself off when it thinks you aren’t looking at it. When you raise your wrist to view it or tap the screen the display turns on. It recognizes the raising your wrist gesture pretty well, but there are times when getting the display to turn on requires a wrist shake. I would like it to be less conservative about when it decides to turn on the display. I realize power is an issue, but I’d like to be able to configure how sensitive it is. There is a slight delay from when you raise your wrist until the display comes on which I find annoying. It is short but just long enough to make you wonder if it is working. They need to tighten that up.

I was concerned about battery life but have found it to be surprisingly good. I charge it each night so I start out at 100% in the morning and I’m yet to get under 30% by the end of the day. I assume battery life will get worse over time (as all rechargable batteries degrade) and third party apps could also affect the battery negatively, but as of right now I’m not at all worried about making it through the day. I was told to be careful of the chronometer watch face as it is easy to accidentally start the stopwatch which can eat up the battery quickly if left to run for hours.

Like my Martian Notifier, the Apple Watch can display notifications from the iPhone. I really like seeing the alert on my wrist so I could decide if I needed to pull out my phone to act upon it. With the Apple Watch in addition to seeing the notification you can also act upon it from the watch. This is really handy for simple things like marking a reminder as complete or replying to an iMessage or email with a canned response. While it is possible to do some more complicated things, like dictate a message using Siri, I find using the phone to be more convenient in those cases.

Speaking of Siri, it can be activated on the watch by saying “Hey Siri”. It can be used to launch watch function such as starting timers or setting alarms. This is easier then fumbling through the watch interface. It can also be used to dictate a quick note which can be handy when you want to get an idea down quickly.

Apps

I have many apps on my iPhone that have a Watch app with them. After playing with some of them I have decided that I really don’t have a need for any of these apps on my watch. Doing anything remotely complicated is just too hard to do on the watch’s tiny display.

Conclusions

So far I am really enjoying the watch. I think it is useful and looks nice. Getting notifications on my wrist is something I really liked with my last watch and the ability to act upon them with this one is a big bonus. My biggest annoyance is that the display doesn’t always turn on when I want. I hope that can be fixed in a future software release.

The big criticism I have heard of the Apple Watch in general is that there is no need to buy one. I would agree that I don’t need an Apple Watch or any other smartwatch for that matter. That isn’t the point of the device. It is a luxury item that is nice to own.

 

 

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The Week in Mobile – December 19, 2015

Here’s my quick take on this week’s stories about smartphones, tablets, and supporting technologies that I found interesting.

5G Service Coming to Verizon in 2017

Now that everyone is using 4G LTE cellular service, Verizon is starting to talk about its upcoming fifth generation (5G) cellular network which it plans to start rolling out in 2017. 5G promises speeds up to 1 Gbps, which is 10 times faster than most wired broadband services.

In explaining why they need to build a faster network Verizon shared some interesting usage statistics:

  • On average, a wireless subscriber uses 2.4 GB of data per month, but by 2020 that is expected to jump to 14 GB per month
  • 70% of Verizon’s network traffic comes from video streaming
  • Verizon’s network traffic has been growing by 75% yearly
  • Traffic from video is expected to grow 55% yearly over the next five years.

Video is taking a huge piece of wireless traffic and is expected to continue to do so. Speeding up the networks will certainly help but that will take years and cost billions to roll out nationwide. Netflix’s effort to reduce the size of their data streams should help reduce network congestion and I expect (and hope!) other content services (e.g. HBO, Hulu, Amazon, iTunes, YouTube) will follow their lead.

In 2007 the original iPhone used the 2G EDGE network which offered speeds up to 135 Kbps. In 2017 we can expect 1 Gbps service which is 7,400 times faster. It is mind boggling how far the technology has progressed in 10 years!

Link: Business Insider

Microsoft Releases an App Store – on Android

Microsoft released an “App Store” for Android on Google Play this week. The app lets Android users download Microsoft’s Office apps.

Even though Microsoft is putting all of its weight behind Windows 10, it’s hard to deny that Windows is not catching on for phones. It is difficult to think of Microsoft building a non-Windows phone but having a presence in mobile is obviously important to the company. Microsoft has been doing a lot of work on Android and this could be a piece of a long term strategy to create their own Android based phones similarly to what Amazon has done. The pieces they have now include:

  • An investment in Cyanogen, an Android based OS
  • Cortana for Android, with deep support in Cyanogen
  • Office for Android (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, OneNote, Skype)
  • “Arrow” home screen launcher
  • Lock screen apps from their “garage” team

Since Microsoft now knows how to manufacture devices it wouldn’t be difficult for them to release a new phone running Cyanogen bundled with Microsoft’s apps targeted at business users.

The upsides for Microsoft would be:

  • Having thousands of popular apps available instantly
  • Keeping users subscribing to Office 365 and OneDrive.
  • Increased Bing usage

Links: Business Insider, Thurrott.com

Japanese University Bans Watches from Exams

In an effort to prevent cheating, Kyoto University is banning all watches from exam rooms. I found this amusing at first, but as wearables become more mainstream this kind of thing will become more of a problem.

Today there are bluetooth enabled hearing aids that can be used to feed audio information to someone. Google Glass, which could always be recording video, raised issues about wearables and privacy.

This is another instance of society having to figure out how to adapt to a new technology. In the coming years, what other connected devices will we have on our person that will cause these types of issues?

Link: The Verge

Samsung to Add 3D touch to Galaxy S7

Samsung is reportedly working to add touch sensitivity, similar to the iPhone 6s’s 3D touch, to the Galaxy S7 for release next spring. I suppose that Samsung adding the latest iPhone feature to their next Galaxy S phone should not be surprising. My question is how well it will be supported by third party developers? Without broad support this feature will go largely unused. Samsung has to incent developers to use their proprietary API and that may be a hard sell since only the GS7 will support this feature. Third party support for the S-Pen in Samsung’s Note series, another Samsung proprietary technology, has not been great so far.

Links: WSJ, The Verge

Benedict Evans’ 16 Topics on Mobile

If you’re interested in the mobile industry you should be reading Benedict Evan’s blog. His most recent post is a summary of what he considers the 16 important topics about mobile today with links to his supporting posts. A bit long but worth the time.

 

That’s all for now. See you next week!

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The Week in Mobile – December 12, 2015

Here’s my quick take on this week’s stories about smartphones, tablets, and supporting technologies that I found interesting.

Apple Battery Case

Apple introduced a new battery case for the iPhone 6/6s priced at $99.

I had a few thoughts about this:

  • Apple is (finally!) acknowledging that battery life on the iPhone 6 and 6s is not good enough.
  • The battery case market must be sufficiently big enough that Apple wants a share.
  • I wonder if the next iPhone will have a port on the back for extended batteries so that the lightning port can remain open?

Apple is getting a lot of criticism about the case for design, usability, performance, and price. Tim Cook himself even had to defend the product.

I suppose it is a bit goofy looking with the big hump in the back, but none of these things look that great. I can’t defend the charging light being inside the case where you can’t see it. Who thought that was a good idea? It also doesn’t hold as much charge as the competition, yet costs more. That is unfortunate but probably won’t hurt sales too much (especially if they stop carrying competing products in the Apple store).

The one thing I really do like about it compared to similar products is that it uses a lightning connector whereas most others use microUSB. For Apple fans who have invested in a lot of lightning cables this is a big plus.

Links: Apple, BGR

Dropbox kills Mailbox

In 2013 Dropbox bought beloved email app Mailbox for a mind blowing $100M with promises building better collaboration tools. In the two years since its purchase Dropbox has done little with Mailbox and is now formally shutting it down.

I used to use Mailbox on my iPhone and liked it a lot. Mailbox brought several innovations to email apps that are now commonplace such scheduling messages and swiping to perform quick actions. Now that Microsoft and Google are giving away email apps with similar capabilities, I would imagine it would be hard to compete in this space without re-inventing email, such as Slack did. And how does this help Dropbox’s business?

While it is sad to see a good app die, I hope that this is a sign that Dropbox is focusing on its core business. At $100M, it does seem like an expensive lesson though.

Links: Mailbox, The Verge

There’s Life in Microsoft’s Surface Business

A report was published this week by 1010data claiming that in October revenue from online sales of Microsoft’s Surface tablets was higher than that from Apple’s iPad. While this does not say that Microsoft is selling more Surfaces than Apple is selling iPads, it does indicate that Microsoft is drawing substantial revenue from its Surface business. This also means that there is significant demand for hybrid PC tablets.

Links: Business Insider

Apple Event coming in March

Although Apple did not announce it, news started spreading this weeek that there will be an Apple event in March to introduce the Apple Watch 2 and a new iPhone with a four inch screen.

A new Apple Watch would explain the big drop in price of Apple Watches at retailers this month. Best Buy is discounting the Apple Watch Sport by $100. Moving out the old inventory for the new?

There has been speculation about a iPhone 6 class phone with a 4″ screen to take the low end of the product line for a long time but I have not seen any leaks of parts from the supply chain that usually precede a new product release so I’m not too sure about this one.

Links: 9to5Mac

Firefox OS is Shut Down

Mozilla has shut down development of the Firefox OS for smartphones. The first version of the OS was released in 2013 to generally poor reviews. It was intended to run in low end phones for emerging markets but cheap Android phones seem to have eliminated the need for this product. Another case of too little too late.

Links: TechCrunch

Microsoft brings Cortana to iOS and Android

Microsoft released iOS and Android apps for its digital assistant, Cortana, this week. Cortana, which is built into Windows 10 devices, is similar to Apple’s Siri and Google Now in that it performs tasks for you and proactively gathers information it thinks you will need. The apps do not have the tight integration with the iOS and Android like it does in Windows, although future versions of Android branch Cyanogen will have Cortana support in the OS.

The release of these apps is another example of Microsoft’s shift to being a service provider from a platform vendor. Satya Nadella’s Microsoft wants you using its services regardless of the platform you choose.

Link: Microsoft, Engadget

Google’s Pixel C Tablet

Google started shipping its high end “Pixel C” Android tablet. Like the Microsoft Surface an optional keyboard is available which turns the tablet into a laptop. Unlike the Surface, the keyboard supports the tablet so you can actually use it on your lap.

Reviews of the hardware have been generally quite positive lauding build quality and performance, although attaching the tablet to the keyboard seems somewhat awkward. The cost is also high ($499 for the tablet and $149 for the keyboard) for an Android tablet.

The big criticism is with the software as Android doesn’t seem ready for a laptop. Android does not support displaying multiple apps at the same time as Windows and iOS9 can. I’m sure that will be coming in a future version of Android, but it isn’t here today and is expected for a device of this cost. Also, Android’s tablet ecosystem is still not rich enough. Microsoft Office is on Android but there are not a lot of other tablet specific apps. The Engadget review says “Android just isn’t cut out for productivity as much as Chrome OS or Windows yet.” I’m surprised that Google isn’t working with more software publishers to produce more Android productivity tablet apps.

Links: Google, The Verge, Ars Technica

That’s it for now! See you next week.

 

 

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Martian Notifier Smartwatch Review

For the holdiays this year I received a Martian Notifier smartwatch as a gift. I’ll admit that I never heard of this device before, and I keep track of these things. At first glance I didn’t think this would be something I’d like but decided to try it out and give it a chance.

Martian Notifier Smartwatch

What is it?

The Martian Notifier is a watch that can receive and display notifications from your iPhone or Android phone. Unlike other smartwatches, this one actually looks like a watch. It has an analog display (i.e. hands) and a small OLED display on the face. It comes in three different colors (black, white, and red) with silicone “quick change” bands available in a variety of colors.

When a notification comes in, the text scrolls across the OLED display and the watch vibrates. You cannot act on these notifications other than to tell the watch to stop displaying it by tapping the face.

Unlike Android Wear watches or the Apple Watch, the Notifier does not have a color display nor can it run apps. As its name suggests, the device’s job is to provide notifications.

The watch communicates with a phone via Bluetooth 4.0 (aka Bluetooth Low Energy). There is an app for your phone to pair the devices and customize the behavior of the phone. From the app you can choose which apps will send notifications, set silent alarms, and choose what to display when the action button is pressed. The vibration pattern can also be selected on a per-app basis.

Living with it

First of all, I like way the watch looks and feels good on my wrist. It won’t be mistaken for a Rolex, but it doesn’t look geeky like most other smartwatches. The watch isn’t too bulky or heavy so it can be worn comfortably. It is styled as a man’s watch and I suspect that many women would feel it is too big for them. I have the black model and I can easily read the face which is the most important feature of any watch. I do wish it had a second hand though.

To see the day and date you have press the button and wait for the date to cycle by, not unlike a 1970’s era digital watch. Pressing the button displays the battery, date, and optionally the time and weather. For some reason after couple of times the weather stops being shown, which I believe is a bug. I also wish I could change the order of the display to put the date first in the order.

After charging the watch, setting it up was pretty straightforward. Setting the time is done with the crown as with any other watch. After installing the app on my iPhone it was pretty easy to pair the watch with the phone and set the options. Updating the firmware was more of a hassle than it should have been. I couldn’t get the Windows updater to work at all. The Mac version is unsigned, which is makes it a hassle to run it, and doesn’t work on OS X Yosemite.

I quickly noticed that when wearing the watch I am much more aware of my notifications. Even though my iPhone is in my pocket I am feeling a buzz on my wrist when I don’t feel my phone vibrate. So I am actually being notified more now than I was before. I initially had notifications enabled for all apps but decided to start turning off the ones that weren’t worth bothering me for. Although you can set different vibration patterns for different apps, in practice I can’t say I noticed the difference enough to know which app was sending the message.

When a notification comes in, a blue LED flashes on the face and the display scrolls the text in white letters on a black background. The text is small and is hard for me to without putting on my glasses, by which time the notification has already gone by but I suspect that will be true of just about smartwatch on the market. A tap the watch’s face will re-display the last notification, but at that point I might as well pull out my phone. The display is also recessed a bit so if you’re looking at the watch at an angle the bottom of the text may be cut off.

Other than notifications, the watch has some other useful features that I did not expect. It has a “leash” mode so that if you get out of range of your phone the watch will buzz you. This can help prevent leaving your phone behind and losing it. It also has a “find phone” command that will play a tone on your phone to help you find it when it is buried in the sofa cushions. The top button of the watch can be used to launch a voice command (Siri on iOS and Google Now on Android) or be the shutter for your phone’s camera. Truthfully, I don’t find either command that useful and wish there were other options like toggling Play/Pause.

Battery life has been really great so far. Martian’s documentation says you should only need to recharge it every five days or so and that sounds about right. Not having to power a color display all the time is a big battery saver. You can check the battery level on the watch itself (by pressing the lower button) or through the app. You can also turn off the watch at night to save power. Charging the watch is done through a microUSB port on the side of the watch. The microUSB connector is longer than most so you have to use the provided cable. Prying out the little cover is difficult and I’m afraid I’m going to break it off. Because of this I suspect the watch is not waterproof so I won’t be wearing it to the beach or swimming. While charging an LED on the face glows red until fully charged when it turns green.

Conclusions

I like this watch more than I thought I would. I didn’t think a smartwatch without a full screen would be worth it, but I found the Notifier is more useful than I expected and performs its primary mission (telling time) well. It doesn’t have all the features that a Pebble, Android Wear, or Apple Watch have but that seems okay to me. Getting my notifications, having an easy to read clock face, and having long battery life are key features and the Notifier handles them well.

See www.martianwatches.com/notifier

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One Week With the iPhone 6 Plus

Okay, I admit it. I was one of those people back in 2011 who thought the Samsung Galaxy Note was a joke. Who would ever want a phone with a 5.3 inch display? How dumb would you look holding it up to your face to make a phone call? I even quipped that Samsung would have to start selling a new line of clothing with larger pockets for Note users. (Foxtrot has since stolen my joke!)

That’s just WAY too big for a phone, isn’t it? Apparently it isn’t for many people as the Galaxy Note went on to be sell millions of units and the era of the “phablet” was upon us. The Note doesn’t sell in numbers like the iPhones or Galaxy S phones (which now sport a 5.1″ display) but it does well enough that the fourth iteration (cleverly named the Note 4) with a 5.7″ screen is to ship in October.

I don’t see too many Galaxy Notes in use, but I do see a lot of large screen Android phones like the Galaxy S5 and HTC One. Whenever I see a Galaxy Note in person at a store I often wonder if I was an Android user, would really want one of these? The large screen is beautiful and quite tempting but is it too big?

When Apple introduced the 2014 model iPhones earlier in September they, for the first time, gave users a choice of screen size. You can buy the iPhone 6 with a 4.7 inch screen or the iPhone 6 Plus with a 5.5 inch screen. As an iPhone user eligible for an upgrade, I now had to answer my hypothetical question earlier. My first thought was that I’d never want the Plus. It’s just too big. Then I started reading about it and the extra features it offers over its smaller sibling. After way too much thought on the matter, I pre-ordered an iPhone 6 Plus.

I’ve been living with the iPhone 6 Plus for about a week. Here are my experiences and opinions of the device.

Why the 6 Plus?

So why choose a 6 Plus over the 6? Other than the larger screen, the advantages of the 6 Plus are:

  • Higher resolution screen (more pixels per inch)
  • Longer battery life
  • Better camera
  • Enhanced applications in landscape mode

The longer battery life was the big reason for me to choose the 6 Plus. Battery life on my iPhone 5 with iOS 8 is noticeably worse than with iOS 7. It wouldn’t come close to making it through a day anymore. I see many people using iPhones in Mophie cases to extend the battery life. So, I figured instead of buying a battery case that will add cost and weight to the device anyway, I might as well just get the 6 Plus and have the benefits of the having a bigger screen too.

Besides, big is relative. The 6 Plus isn’t that big compared to older devices and some people even think the 4.7″ iPhone 6 is too big!

What I Like

After living with the phone for a week and putting it through its paces, here are the things I really like about the phone.

Better Battery

The big frame of the 6 Plus gives room for a bigger battery. It’s 2159 mAh for those of you who care about numbers. That’s over 50% more capacity than the iPhone 6 and 90% more than the iPhone 5s.

In practical terms, I’m getting all day use with plenty of room to spare. I use my phone a lot and mostly on cellular and I am seeing 25% left by 11:30pm. My iPhone 5 would need a recharge by midday. Not having to worry about the battery dying is really a delight.

Big Screen

The iPhone 6 Plus’s screen is really beautiful! Text and images look just great. There is more room to see web pages, emails, tweets, and anything else you’re looking at. Video is wonderful as it is a true HD display (although I do wish they added a second speaker for stereo).

After setting up the device and playing with it for about 30 minutes I grabbed my old iPhone 5 and was really taken aback by how small it felt. Tiny is probably a better word. It was one of those “how did I live with this for so long?” moments. (Here’s where the Android fans laugh hysterically).

iOS 8 provides an architecture allowing apps to support the different screen sizes. Apps that do not use this are automatically scaled up to fit the entire screen. It is sort of like running an iPhone app on an iPad but without the black bars. Many reviewers have complained that the scaled apps look fuzzy, but I’ve been quite impressed how good they look on the 6 Plus. There are apps I used that I didn’t even know were scaled until I opened the keyboard at which point it is obvious as the keys are noticeably larger. The text isn’t fuzzy like I feared it would be. That may be a function of the higher resolution display of the 6 Plus so scaled apps may look worse on the iPhone 6.

Applications are already being updated to take advantage of the display and are much better with more room. I can see much more on the display without it looking crowded or with tiny text. I expect other apps will be updated in the coming months. Many new apps that claim they “support iOS 8″ do not support the higher resolution displays so be aware. Some of the apps that do support the larger displays include Tweetbot (my favorite Twitter client), Evernote, Wunderlist, DayOne Journal, Twitter, Downcast, Week Cal, and Fantastical. Notably missing from this list is Facebook, Mailbox, and all of the Google apps.

I use my phone as a GPS for navigation in my car. The 5.5” screen is a huge upgrade in this regard. Most maps apps (including Google and Waze) display important information in small text making it very hard to read while driving, even when the phone is mounted on your windshield. Not a problem with the 6 Plus! I used Google maps this weekend and it was just great. Waze too. I was happy that my windshield mount was able to hold the big phone (although I did have to adjust it a bit). Neither Google Maps nor Waze support the larger displays but the scaled up versions work very well.

Many of Apple’s default apps display differently in landscape orientation on the 6 Plus which makes it more iPad-like. I really like what they did with Weather as I can see the whole day’s weather, the next 4 days, sunrise, sunset, chance of rain, and humidity all in one screen. Other apps use a split view such as Mail which shows a list of messages on the left and the selected message on the right. This makes the phone feel more like an iPad nano than a big iPhone.

VoLTE

Verizon smartphone users know that, due to Verizon’s cellular technology, you cannot get data over cellular while you are on a phone call. It can be very annoying if you need to look something up online for someone you are talking to on the phone. Voice over LTE (or VoLTE) uses the 4G LTE radio for both voice and data. Verizon just started supporting VoLTE on their network and the iPhones 6 and 6 Plus are compatible with it. VoLTE is not enabled by default on the iPhone. You have to change the value in Settings/Cellular/Enable LTE to “Voice and Data”. It seems to work just fine. I don’t notice any difference in voice quality or battery use. It will become a problem when I’m in an area without LTE coverage though. If that happens often enough I’ll just switch back.

What I Didn’t Like

Okay, so there’s lots to like here but a really big phone has its drawbacks. The 6 Plus has its share of those.

Bad for Pockets

It is just uncomfortable to carry around in a front pants pocket. The device fits just fine in my front pocket of a pair of slacks or jeans (it doesn’t stick out or anything like that), but you feel the phone with every step you take. Jeans are worse than slacks in this regard. You feel it while sitting especially while driving where you can’t do anything about it. I don’t think there is much to this whole “bendgate” controversy, but I could see if this thing were to bend it would be wearing jeans while driving. I’d strongly discourage keeping it in your back pocket if you want to keep the phone straight.

It is also difficult to pull it out of a pocket. The phone is longer so it takes longer to pull it out. This is noticeable and annoying. I’m waiting to hear about “iPhone elbow” afflicting people. Often you’re just trying to get something done (like answer a call or view a message) this just slows you from doing that.

I don’t know how anyone can carry this phone while exercising. Fitness tracking is supposed to be a key feature of iOS 8 and if you want to use it for that this probably isn’t the device for you.

Two Hands Required

Every review of this device that I have read has said that you need two hands to use it and, for the most part, that is true. Most operations really do require two hands because you just cannot reach the whole screen with your thumb on the hand holding the phone. I didn’t think that would be that big of a deal but it turned out to be as I started living with it. I couldn’t dial a phone number with one hand because I couldn’t reach all the numbers. I couldn’t turn on the flashlight while holding it in my right hand as the flashlight button is on the left of command center. The bottom line is that you will have to change your phone habits when using the 6 Plus. I don’t like the idea that I should have to conform to the device instead of the other way around.

I now realize why Android and Windows Phone devices have a fixed “back” button on the bottom of the screen. Most iOS apps have a back button in the upper left and having to reach up there is a stretch. The “reachability” feature is supposed to address this, but I have not found it very useful as it is often more awkward to double tap the home button than just reach. Actually, you can just swipe right from the left edge to do a “back” and that is what I found myself doing most of the time. This was added when the iPhone 5 was introduced for the same reason. Even this is a little more difficult on the 6 Plus as it is a far reach to the edge of the screen.

The 6 Plus has a special keyboard in landscape mode that adds extra keys on the left and right of the standard keyboard. Left and right arrow keys at last! But the phone is so wide that it is hard for me to reach the middle keys. I’d rather they had made the keys wider than added new ones. I rarely type in landscape so this isn’t that big of a deal for me but it could be to others who prefer landscape.

Holding the 6 Plus can be awkward for those of us who are not in the NBA. My four fingers do not wrap all the way around it as they do with earlier iPhones. My the index finger ends up supporting the back. I usually tuck the bottom corner of a phone into my palm, but that isn’t comfortable with this phone. It is hard to hold that way and it feels top heavy. This is part of the reason you cannot use it phone with one hand. You really need to hold it in the middle which requires using your other hand for tapping.

Big Screen Rotation

One feature of the 6 Plus is that the home screen (aka Springboard) rotates in landscape mode to have the dock on the right and the icons rearrange into a 6×4 grid. This is nice but if you hold the phone in portrait upside down (with the home button on top and earpiece on the bottom) the screen will flip. The iPad does this too. This seems like a nice idea but it turns out it something I actually never want. If I’m holding the phone on an angle (like when pulling out of my pocket) it can flip which is something I don’t want it to do. Then I have to play that game where you shake the phone to get it to go back to the way you want. I wish there was a setting to disable this.

Potential Speed Issues

Despite having more pixels to push around, I haven’t had any seen any slowness in scrolling or other screen animations. The processor on the 6 Plus is clocked a little faster than the 6 probably for this reason. But the 6 Plus does some weird things with its display that worry me that these kinds of performance problems can come with more sophisticated apps or future iOS releases.

The iPhone 6’s display is essentially the same as an iPhone 5/5s but with more pixels. The iPhone 6 Plus, due to its higher resolution, should be 2208×1242 instead of 1920×1080. That would make it easier for app developers to scale their apps. In fact, to the applications the screen does look like the 1242 resolution and iOS scales everything by a factor of 0.2 to fit in the 1080 screen. You don’t notice this because the pixel density is so high and the computer is fast enough to do the scaling in real time. Although the device has the computing horsepower for today’s apps, will that be true in a year? it two? The iPad 3 (the first iPad with a retina display) had a similar issue where the device became more sluggish with newer versions of iOS.

Power Button

The iPhone 6 Plus and the iPhone 6 have the power button on the right side instead of the top right as on every other iPhone. Just about every other large screen phone has the power button in the same place because it is a long reach up to the top right. I understand that, but it still bothers me because it is placed opposite of the volume buttons. When I grip the phone, pressing either power or volume up makes press the other button too which is something I never want to do.

Incompatibilities

It pains me to say it but it appears that fragmentation has come to iOS. (I’ll wait for the Android fans to finish laughing now.) Now there are four screen sizes to support (not including non-retina iPhones) and two processor families (32 and 64 bit). There are some apps that don’t seem to work on the 6 Plus that work fine on other models. Most notable is the Google app. It opens but if I try to open the Google Now cards the app becomes very sluggish and eventually just hangs. I had to turn off Google Now to use it for searches at all. This is very weird as I don’t have this problem with the iPhone 5 running iOS 8 so there is something about the device that is different. Google even released an update that was supposedly specifically for iPhone 6 Plus compatibility but it didn’t seem to help much. I’ve heard similar stories of apps the work on some iPhones but not others. Developers are going to have to test on all models to ensure compatibility.

Miscellaneous Observations

Case Required

I always keep my iPhones in a case. The main reason is so that when I put it face down on a table the glass isn’t resting on the surface. The iPhone 6 Plus’s wide girth and curvy aluminum body makes it difficult to grip and a case is needed just to prevent dropping it.

I chose the Apple leather case. It is very thin and adds little bulk to an already bulky device. The case also keeps the camera from sticking out. The volume and power buttons are a bit hard press but I expect the more I use it the leather will soften. The bottom of the phone is left uncovered exposing the speaker, microphone, headphone, and lighting ports.

There are more heavy duty cases to prevent damage when the phone is dropped (such as OtterBox cases) but be aware they will made an already large phone much bigger. It will be harder to hold and harder to pocket.

Camera

I was happy that Apple did not give in the fallacy that more megapixels are needed for a camera to be better. More megapixels means bigger image files. Larger pictures mean I can store fewer pictures. It also means that uploading them will take longer and use up more precious cellular data. For me, I think the value for the extra storage goes down after 8MP as I don’t print anything bigger than 5×7’s.

I haven’t had a lot of time to test out the new camera features like super slow motion and auto HDR but I’m looking forward to it. My phone is my primary camera because it is the one I always have with me. iPhone 6 camera is being called the gold standard so the need to carry a point and shoot is rapidly vanishing. The only thing missing is an optical zoom, but that is not possible on a device so thin.

The camera does protrude a bit from the back. This is a concession to the thinness of the device. It seems un-Apple like, but even Apple cannot defeat physics. You shouldn’t worry about the lens getting scratched as it covered in scratch resistant Sapphire glass. Putting the camera in a case should remedy the problem of it sticking out. Just don’t do what this guy did!

Honda Bluetooth Problems

With iOS 7.1.2 on my iPhone 5 I started having Bluetooth problems with my 2013 Honda CR-V. The Bluetooth connection would randomly drop and be reconnected a few seconds later. This would interrupt playing audio through the USB connection and GPS navigation. It turns out to be a known problem in the Honda community. The workaround is to turn off wifi, which is easy to do with command center but a pain to remember every time I get in my car. I was hoping iOS 8 would solve this problem but it did not. I was also hoping the iPhone 6 would solve this problem as the hardware is different but it did not. Maybe iOS 9?

Touch ID

Touch ID (the fingerprint scanner on the home button) is not new to the iPhone 6 family but this is the first iPhone I owned with it so it is new to me. Overall i find it works really well. I trained it to my two thumbs and two index fingers so I can open the phone with either hand. I am already annoyed when I have to type in my PIN. iOS 8 has opened up Touch ID to third party apps so I am looking forward to not having to type passwords as often.

One gripe is that if you enable Touch ID, you have to use it or enter the PIN every time you unlock your phone. If you disable Touch ID and just require a PIN you can set it so that it only asks for the PIN after a number of minutes since the last unlock.

Conclusion

The iPhone 6 Plus is a great phone but it is not for everyone. It’s probably not for most people. The phone’s size means that you have to do some things differently than you would with a smaller phone and for most people that just won’t be acceptable. I totally understand that and those people should choose an iPhone 6. I would suggest that anyone considering the 6 Plus to go try one out at a Apple store, carrier store, or other retailer. It is hard to understand how big it is until you hold one in your hand.

After the first couple of days I was sure I made a big mistake and was going to return it for an iPhone 6. Then I started warming up to it. I found that changing my habits to accommodate the larger device wasn’t as big of a deal as I thought. In the pre-smartphone days I charged my phone every few days. Charging once (or more times) per day was a concession I made to using a smartphone so why couldn’t I make others for a bigger smartphone if the overall experience was better?

The bottom line is I really like using this phone. For me, seeing more information on the big screen and having ample battery life outweigh the annoyances of a large device. Earlier this week I was sure I was going to return it, but now I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep it.

I was going to title this post “iPhone 6 Plus Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Phablet” but that would have given away the ending.

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My Thoughts on the New iPhones

This Friday, September 20, Apple will start selling the new iPhone 5c and iPhone 5s. Here are my thoughts on the 2013 iPhones.

iPhone 5s

The 5s is the ‘s’ version of last year’s iPhone 5. Is the 5s considered a “disappointment” like most ‘s’ models? After all, it’s the same as the iPhone 5. Except it has a much faster 64 bit CPU. And a much better camera system. And a motion processor. And a fingerprint scanner. But other than that it’s, you know, the same.

I think that the 5s is a misunderstood device by the media. Pundits don’t see the innovation of the 5s. Apple calls it “forward looking” meaning the iPhone 5s is about its potential, not the out of the box experience. Out of the box the 5s will run all older 32 bit iPhone software like any other iPhone. The excitement is in the new applications that it will be able to support that older models won’t.

The 64 bit A7 CPU allows for fast processing of large amounts of data. Think of manipulating photos and movies or advanced 3D games. The potential for specialized enterprise apps (such as medical imaging) is also impressive.

The M7 motion sensor chip when paired with iBeacon support in iOS 7 allows for a whole new way for your phone to interact in a retail environments (large stores, malls, etc.). People can use their phones to find out about sales or find the products they want. Also think about the use in museums, amusement parts, and the like where the 5s can be your guide.

The fingerprint scanner is interesting in that it will have people enabling security on their phones who never would have before. This might not prevent device theft, but it will help keep their data safe.

I’ve heard that yields on the fingerprint scanner have been quite poor which will make the 5s difficult to get for some time. WSJ is saying that supply will be “grotesquely low”. Apple has not been accepting pre-orders of the 5s so if you want one you’d better be quick on the website Friday night or wait out in front of your local store.

The new color (gold) adds another set of SKUs to manage and creates a similar problem inventory management issue that the 5c has. How many gold ones does Apple have to produce? How many will retailers need to stock?

iPhone 5c

Apple’s new mid-priced iPhone, the iPhone 5c, is an interesting device for several reasons. It is the first new iPhone Apple created that is not at the top of its line. The 5c is designed to be sold at the middle tier price; $99 with 2 year contract or $549 off contract. The internals are not new, but rather it has the same specs as last year’s iPhone 5. (Same screen, processor, camera, etc.) The 5c puts that technology in a new colorful plastic case that is a little larger and a little heavier than the iPhone 5.

The 5c also is the first time when a mid-tier model can cost as much as the upper-tier model. A 32GB 5c costs $199 (on contract) which is the same as a 16GB 5s. If a customer has $199 to spend, which model will they choose?

Pictures of the 5c had been leaked for months, so I think the industry had a pretty good idea of what it was going to look like. The biggest surprise about the 5c was the price. The 5c turned out not to be the “cheap” iPhone every pundit had predicted and Wall Street wanted. Its price point indicates that Apple’s strategy is to increase margins and profits, not global market share. Apple wants to position itself as a premium brand that is worth more. The question is at what point do developers prioritize Android over iOS?

We won’t know how much it costs Apple to build a 5c as opposed to a 5 or 5s until someone (like iFixit.com) tears one of these apart and analyzes the parts. I suspect it will be significantly less than an iPhone 5 costs to build but not enough to bring it down to the hoped for figure of $300.

The 5c was made available for pre-order on September 13 and as of the 17th has not sold out yet. This worries some analysts that the 5c will be a flop but I am not particularly surprised by this. People who pre-order iPhones are the hardcore phone lovers and they are not the target market for the 5c. Those people will want the bleeding edge device – the 5s. I believe that the 5c will sell very well in retail settings where people can see them and hold them.

To be honest, Nokia and Microsoft should really take the 5c as a big compliment. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. The 5c with iOS 7 seem to take a lot from Nokia’s Lumia line of phones running Windows Phone. Nokia has been selling colorful plastic bodied phones for some time and iOS 7’s flat look borrows considerably from Windows Phone’s look.

The 5c presents an interesting inventory management problem. The 5c comes in five colors and that is a lot of SKUs for Apple to produce and for retailers to stock. It is hard to know which colors will be most popular until the market decides. This can be a nightmare for retailers who don’t want unpopular colors taking up shelf space or to turn away customers because they don’t have the model the customer wants. This is very similar to the problem with the first iMacs of the early 2000’s.

Should you upgrade?

If you have an iPhone 4s your contract is coming to an end and you can buy a new phone at the subsidized price. Either the 5c or 5s would be a worthy upgrade. The larger screen, better camera, and LTE support are all big improvements over the 4s. Personally I’d advise getting a 5s for the superior camera and processing power. If you’re signing up for another two years you should always get the best phone you can. An iPhone 5c may feel really old in two years.

If you have an iPhone 5 you have a harder decision as you will have to pay full price for the phone as you are likely only one year into a two year contract. The iPhone 5 has a pretty good resale value so you can sell it to offset the cost but that’s a lot of work and money out of pocket for the update. The 5c offers nothing over the 5 other than pretty colors and a larger, heavier body. The 5s does offer advantages but are they worth the money and hassle? The camera on the 5s is likely the most compelling consumer feature but the camera on the 5 isn’t at all bad. I’d advise waiting for next year’s iPhone 6. That’s what I’m going to do!

Conclusions

I think the new iPhones will do very well for Apple. The 5c will bring in people who want an iPhone but don’t want to spend top dollar. Yes, it’s last year’s technology but don’t underestimate the power of a colorful case to draw in customers. These are customers who don’t care about specs, want a phone that is fun, and like the Apple brand. They’re the kind of people who answer the question “What kind of iPhone did you get?” with “A blue one.”

The 5s will surely appeal to those who want the best Apple has to offer. The interesting thing will be if developers build applications that only the 5s can run because of the extra processing power or motion support. I’m looking forward to see in the coming months the types of applications that get released.

 

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